A story of female friendship and survival

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 When I first started to think about women’s stories we could spotlight this year for International Women's Day there was one in particular that instantly came to mind. I’ve blogged before about the sinking of the Ellerman liner, City of Benares. Torpedoed mid-Atlantic in 1940 while taking child evacuees to Canada, it’s one of the most heart-rending pieces of research I’ve ever carried out. As always with such tragedies though, the larger story is made up of hundreds of smaller, more personal, ones. Beth and Bess are one of these stories.

Fourteen year old Beth Cummings and fifteen year old Bess Walder were both, along with Bess’ ten year old brother Louis, part of the CORB (Children’s Overseas Reception Board) evacuation scheme that ran early in the Second World War. The idea behind the government sponsored scheme was to evacuate children, whose parents could not afford to send them privately, overseas to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Parents would not be able to go with them, instead a group of escorts would accompany them on board the ships and they would be placed with relatives or foster families upon arrival. Bess Walder had long wanted to go to Canada and once she heard about the scheme she succeeded in persuading her parents to apply for her and her brother Louis and was allocated a place on the City of Benares.

Beth Cummings had grown up in Liverpool, raised by her mother after her father’s early death. She and her mother enjoyed a close relationship; her older brothers were serving in the forces so it was just the two of them at home, but with the Liverpool blitz worsening her mother felt Beth would be better off journeying to Canada to stay with her aunt. She too was allocated a place under the CORB scheme on the City of Benares. Beth and Bess met the night before boarding the ship while billeted in Fazakerley and took a liking to one another. Their fast friendship continued during their five days on board ship. At 10pm on 17 September, 600 miles from land and in stormy weather, the City of Benares was struck by a torpedo.

The evacuee children were all in bed but despite difficult conditions their escorts managed to get their charges to the lifeboats. Beth and Bess found themselves rerouted round damaged areas of the ship before finally reaching the deck, their struggle however was far from over. The damage to the ship, combined with the weather conditions made launching the lifeboats difficult, many boats became waterlogged upon launching leaving people sitting up to their waists in freezing water. Beth and Bess’ boat was overturned completely by the waves caused by the final sinking of the Benares (just 30 minutes after she’d been hit). Bess had been taught sea swimming by her father and managed to swim back to the upturned lifeboat. Despite not being a strong swimmer, Beth was buoyed back to the surface by her lifejacket and managed to join her friend clinging to the upturned boat. For more than 18 hours, through the night and much of the next day, these two girls clung on in freezing weather, battered by waves and hailstones. At first there were many other people hanging on alongside them but by morning only they and a single Indian seaman (known at the time as a Lascar) remained alive.

Rescue, in the form of Royal Naval Destroyer HMS Hurricane, came too late for most of the survivors of the sinking. When morning had dawned with no sign of rescue in sight it was a heavy blow to the two girls. Numb and exhausted they knew they’d never survive another night. Daylight had just begun to fail when rescue finally found them. As the closest Allied ship to the City of Benares the crew of the HMS Hurricane had raced through the night in dangerous conditions to search for survivors. What they found were scenes of devastation, many of those who had made it to the lifeboats had died during the night of exposure sitting in waterlogged boats. Only seven of the 90 evacuee children on board survived to be rescued by the Hurricane, including Bess’s little brother Louis, (though a further 6 were found to have survived in a lifeboat discovered 8 days later). Beth and Bess had been able to haul themselves further out of the water up the keel of the upturned lifeboat, which may well have helped them to survive. Almost all of the others who’d started the night clinging to their boat though had died. The only other survivor was the Lascar seaman, he would later say that he owed his life to Beth and Bess, that he would have given up without them.

What enables people to hang on in circumstances like these? Bess and Beth’s age and physical fitness were on their side, but afterwards both gave the same reason why they couldn’t let go. Each knew that to give up would mean her friend doing the same. They felt responsible not only for their own lives but for each others, each knowing that they could not carry on alone.

Bess and Beth’s friendship would last far beyond that fateful voyage, they remained close friends for the rest of their lives and in 1947 Bess married Beth’s older brother, Geoffrey. The courage and fortitude of these two teenage girls is astounding, their survival a near miracle, but what struck me most about this story is the life-saving power of friendship. That’s why they seemed the perfect subject for International Women’s Day.

We’ve seen some wonderful examples in recent months of the strength of female friendship and solidarity through the likes of the #metoo and #timesup campaigns. This year we’re marking the 100th anniversary of the beginning of success for the sisterhood of women’s suffrage campaigners, an achievement made possible through women who stood together to support each other. The media is sadly fond of pitting women against each other, often celebrating one woman by putting down another. Just as important as celebrating women though is celebrating the bonds between women and I can think of no better example than these two teenagers, grimly hanging on in icy darkness, encouraged by the knowledge that they were sustaining each other.

“One other thing Bess and I had which was in our favour …was to do with the fact that there were two of us and we relied on each other to survive…I think if one of us had gone, the other wouldn’t have lasted, I’m quite sure about that.” - Beth Cummings, quoted in Children of the Doomed Voyage, Janet Menzies, 2005 “What I think helped me and Beth to survive as we did was that we were doing it together.” - Bess Walder, quoted in Children of the Doomed Voyage, Janet Menzies, 2005

Lead image: City of Benares, Archives Centre, Maritime Museum collection, reference MCR/61/371 (copyright unknown, believed to be expired)